COP26’s looming failure to address food systems’s real climate change victim

In the month of October, will publish a series of weekly insights on emerging topics within the COP26 landscape and its 4 Goals to combat climate change - mitigation, adaptation, collaboration, and finance. On the basis of insights generated from TSC’s global sensing technology Atium, we will highlight the stories that are yet often overlooked but provide valuable guidance in reaching the Goals that this historic conference is looking to set.

‘Mitigation’ and ‘Adaptation’ alone will not cut it for the future of food systems

COP26 is believed to be a pivotal moment in reaching the Paris Agreement’s goals by 20501. Not surprisingly, most attention is currently being given to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Global food systems - the interconnected processes of growing, producing, transporting, processing, retailing, wholesaling of foods all the way to their consumption and disposal - account for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of biodiversity loss2. As discussed in our last week’s insight series, mitigation of agriculture emissions will prove to be key. Yet, agriculture is not only a contributing force to climate change. Farmers across the globe, especially smallholder farmers (who account for 90% of global agricultural activity), are particularly vulnerable to changes in seasonal climate and the extreme weather conditions that come with it. In the past few years alone we’ve seen agricultural production affected by droughts and floods from Kenya to Iran, and wildfires in the United States, Australia and Brazil3. This is where climate adaptation comes in, another COP26 focus.

By 2050, we will be facing the uphill task to feed 9-10 billion people, while agricultural production is expected to be reduced by about 6% because of climate change4. Questions like “how will we do this while not destroying our planet?” and “how will we do this under tougher climate conditions?” have often been asked, and experts are keen to provide answers. What has not been asked enough so far is “how will we continue to feed our growing population under these circumstances and how do we do it well?”. Such a holistic approach is in fact well reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals: SDG2 Zero Hunger aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. By depicting agricultural production as both the villain and victim of climate change, COP26 might miss the point and forgo addressing the real victim: nutrition. UN Secretary General Guterres recently voiced a similar concern when he asked the global community “not to see food as just a commodity but as a right.”5

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Key lessons from COVID-19

Covid-19 disrupted many value chains across the globe. In particular global food systems suffered - and are still suffering - from the severe consequences of the pandemic. In July of this year, the annual report launched by the WHO, WFP, IFAD, Unicef - The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 (SOFI) - confirmed this with some staggering data: The number of people affected by chronic hunger in 2020, rose by more than in the previous five years combined.
A tenth of the global population – between 720 million people and 811 million – were undernourished last year. Some 418 million of that number were in Asia and 282 million were in Africa. Globally, 2.4 billion people did not have access to sufficiently nutritious food in 2020 – an increase of nearly 320 million people in one year.

Even though the pandemic was a key factor in undermining any progress made over years when it comes to eradicating hunger and malnutrition, political conflicts and climate change are highlighted by the report as other detrimental forces. WFP’s Executive Director echoed this when he mentioned that “The (report) highlights a devastating reality: the path to Zero Hunger is being stopped dead in its tracks by conflict, climate and COVID-19.” He further added “Children’s future potential is being destroyed by hunger. The world needs to act to save this lost generation before it’s too late.” It is worth to note the report takes a rather holistic approach when it comes to climate change, and does not limit its recommendations to scaling up climate resilience across food systems alonet. It also highlights the importance of, amongst others, intervening along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods, and strengthening food environments and changing consumer behaviour to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment.6

Accelerating real progress beyond the UN Food Systems Summit

Last month the United Nations hosted the first-ever Food Systems Summit, a collaboration between several UN agencies, philanthropic foundations and private-sector organisations with the mission to catalyse change in the way that food is produced and consumed around the world. Despite lingering criticism about the role of the private sector and the lack of involvement of indigenous communities, the Summit was relatively successful in securing several funding pledges to transform food systems. These included $10 billion over five years from the United States – half to be spent globally through USAID’s Feed the Future initiative, with a strong focus to reduce poverty and stunting by 20 percent in targeted countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also announced $922 million to improve nutrition, and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the world’s largest multilateral climate fund, said it aims to invest $2 billion a year between 2020 and 20237.

The two-day conference was concluded by heads of state giving statements outlining commitments to making their countries’ “food systems’’ more “inclusive, resilient and sustainable”. For many, climate change featured prominently on their agendas.8 However, unlike a Conference of the Parties (COP), no negotiations took place at the Food Systems Summit. Additionally, unlike at a COP, the outcomes of the Food Systems Summit are not legally binding. It is not clear what mechanisms for holding countries and other parties accountable to their commitments will be put in place.7

A growing push to highlight nutrition in the face of climate change

The Food Systems Summit has certainly generated momentum across the wider community. Over the past month, we identified stakeholders across IGO, NGO, government, academia and the private sector who highlighted hunger and malnutrition as pressing issues in global food systems in the age of climate change, and at the same time explicitly referenced COP26 as a potential platform to address this.

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Will COP26 be able to consider a systems approach?

As a growing multi-stakeholder coalition is arguing, COP26 would be the ideal platform to address nutrition in light of climate change. Focusing on mitigation of agricultural emissions and climate adaptation of agricultural practices would fail to paint the complete picture in which global food systems should be seen: The scope of the SDGs (SDG2) and the latest finding of the SOFI Report are just a few examples that indicate progress can only be delivered when we consider a systems approach. Not only will the Conference be able to easily pick up momentum generated by the UN Food Systems Summit that was concluded last month, it will also be able to translate this initial momentum into concrete steps forward in eradicating hunger and malnutrition especially given its funding potential (a USD100 billion climate fund will be launched at COP269), and the nature of its forum being able to conclude binding agreements and commitments between governments.

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